The global utility poles market size has been valued at $45.6 billion in 2018 and is projected to reach $58.8 billion by 2026. Increased energy demand and the extension of current power networks are the main drivers of this market's growth opportunities. The energy transmission and distribution segment is the largest consumer of utility poles as compared to others.
Wood is the pioneering material used in pole making and is highly adopted in such utility poles. They are still popular and widely used to carry electric power lines and telephone lines all over the world because of their high strength per unit weight, low installation and maintenance costs, and excellent durability when they are properly treated with wood preservatives. The majority of the poles supporting distribution systems across the world are wooden poles. As an indication, there are between 160 and 180 million wooden poles in the US. Similarly, around 5 million of the estimated 7 million utility poles in Australia are wooden poles. There are more than 10 million wooden utility poles in use in Turkey.
Some of the major market players studied and profiled in the global utility poles market are Valmont Industries Inc., Skipper Ltd., Nippon Concrete Industries Co. Ltd., Elsewedy Electric Company, Hill & Smith Holdings PLC, Stella-Jones, FUCHS Europoles GmbH, Omega Factory, Pelco products Inc., RS Technologies Inc., Osmose and others.
Wood is subject to deterioration, which can occur due to abiotic and biotic factors. Damage or deterioration of the pole can lead to outage of services and cause huge losses to organizations. Consequently, utility companies need to carry out periodic maintenance on poles to determine the extent of deterioration. Poles with significant decay are replaced while others are subjected to appropriate maintenance and contingency plans to reduce the effect of degradation and replace poles with significant decay.
Utilities and power companies must be meticulous in the timing and thoroughness of their pole and power line safety inspections. Failure to do so will cause maintenance workers and the public at large electrocution and shock injuries if there isn’t a safety inspection program in place to guard against deterioration of conditions and power line infrastructure. However, there are several challenges encountered by stakeholders today, as far as wooden pole maintenance is concerned. Some of them are listed below.
- Conventionally, pole inspection is carried out using Visual examination - which is easiest and lowest cost- along with other popular methods such as impacting the pole with a hammer (sound), measuring penetration resistance with a pointed tool (bore) or excavating around the base of the pole. Such techniques as well as the subsequent decisions are subjective, which might lead to premature or delayed pole replacement. This calls for the use of technology for wooden pole inspection that leads to more standardized and reliable outcomes.
- There are two types of inspection possible: destructive and non-destructive (NDT) in nature. The NDT method is usually preferred . It does not alter the structure of the pole. While there are several NDT methods, there is a research need to relate parameters obtained from NDT to wood material properties and estimates of remaining life.
- It is known that flaws often cause failure. Research is needed to bridge the gap between the known presence of a flaw, or decayed area, and the calculated strength or lifetime prediction i.e. while measuring the size and location of decayed/ infected area is possible with various wood testing methods; it is required to map this information to the strength/ life of the wooden pole.
- Some methods require a person to climb the pole for servicing/ inspection – however, the safety of the person climbing the pole needs to be ensured prior to that. A viable alternative could be the robotic solutions available today. They could be looked at in detail.
- There is a need to maintain data for further analysis and management (e.g. maintaining records of inspection, treatment, timeline, recommendations etc.) with relevant technology for standardized procedures.
- Predictive and Preventive maintenance – The average age of wooden poles today is 40 years with some even being 100 years old. The objective is to find the optimal inspection interval for the preventive replacement to minimize long-term maintenance cost.
- Finally, there is an everlasting demand toward controlling costs with increase in efficiency of wooden pole inspection and maintenance.
In conclusion, automated wooden pole inspection and maintenance is of current interest to several wooden utility pole companies as well as researchers/ academic institutions working in related areas [4, 5, 6, 7, 8]. This can lead to several business opportunities in the global market too. If such a solution is to address several limitations and challenges in the current process of pole inspection, it is necessary to relook at the problem innovatively. By integrating nondestructive wood quality evaluation methods with relevant Robotics and AI technology solutions, it would be possible to achieve a reliable and optimized automated wooden pole inspection process. This is also hugely pertinent to Wipro’s current focus on custom robotics.